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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rational relativism

I've been reading Neil Levy's Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction, which, despite its sub-title, is a sophisticated and thorough study of the philosophical issues surrounding moral relativism. This is actually the third time I've read this book, and probably not the last: I find something new in it each time, and each time I am led way out of my intellectual comfort zone by powerful arguments that highlight the difficulty in criticising the substantive moral ideas of people with whom you are in a fundamental disagreement about values.

In my view, Levy succeeds in establishing that moral relativism can be developed as a coherent and plausible theory - which is not to deny that there are naive versions of it around, versions that philosophers delight in debunking. I've been known to do a bit of demolition work myself when lecturing to philosophy undergraduates, many of whom come along with rather half-baked relativist notions picked up somewhere during their high school years, or perhaps from other disciplines where relativism tends to rule.

In the end, Levy defends a watered-down cultural relativism that he prefers to call "pluralism" (note that he considers both subjectivist theories and theories that make morality relative to culture to be varieties of "moral relativism", but the book is almost entirely about the latter, i.e. "cultural relativism" in Levy's terminology). I have a lot of sympathy for this position of moral pluralism, although the arguments actually seem to me to support a slightly more robust endorsement of moral relativism. Levy's ultimate claim, as I understand it, seems to be that there are objective values - such as those of individual liberty and those of social harmony - but these are plural, conflicting, and not entirely commensurable. Different culturally-based moral systems will emphasise different values - and may conflict with each other - without any system necessarily being "wrong".

A better conclusion, in my view, would be that there are no objective values: there are, indeed, things that tend to be valued widely by beings like us - with our biological needs and evolved psychology - under a wide range of environmental conditions. However, someone who does not value all of these things is not making an intellectual mistake. In that sense, none of these things can be said to be objectively valuable. I need to explain this.

Different rational beings, with different needs and psychological propensities, might not value all the same things that we do, and might not (I suppose) value any of them. At any rate, we seem to be able to imagine some pretty bizarre alien intelligences that might have very different value sets from ours. The same might apply to a human being with a sufficiently unusual fundamental psychology (a psychopath, say); such a person might have a radically different value set from the rest of us, without making any mistake about what objectively exists. Likewise for a whole group of human beings who have established a society in unusual environmental circumstances. These people might not be failing to identify something that exists "out there" in objective reality.

Nonetheless, most human beings are sufficiently similar that, in practice, we can obtain a great deal of intersubjective and intercultural agreement on what we really do value.

Perhaps Levy would accept the above formulation, though it is not his. Although it is neater, in a way, to propose that there are plural objective values in the world, it looks to me like metaphysical overreaching. We do better simply to emphasise what we have in common, rather than claiming objectivity for it. It's a matter of psychology, not metaphysics.

Or maybe Levy would count this kind of intersubjective agreement among most humans as a sort of objectivity. For myself, I would rather save talk of "objectivity" for theories that assert, or assume, some kind of independent, transcendentally guaranteed, realm of value that lies beyond human need and desire. Commonsense morality appears to involve an assumption something like that (at least to some extent), and I think we should be prepared to bite the bullet and say that commonsense morality is (to that extent) in error. It's for this reason that I follow J.L. Mackie and call myself an error theorist, or a moral sceptic, rather than a relativist.

Be that as it may, Levy has offered us a rational relativism, and his ultimate position is one that I could accept with just a bit of structural, or perhaps merely linguistic, tweaking. He has also shown how it is, nonetheless, possible to engage in rational arguments and judgments about other moralities - sometimes they are based on empirical falsehoods, and sometimes they refuse to provide deeper argument in circumstances where the rock-bottom values relied upon seem to cry out for further support (perhaps because they are values that lack the right kind of widespread intersubjective and intercultural endorsement, creating a pressure for more to be said). We are not left bereft of tools with which to condemn irrationalists and fanatics, though sometimes the full argument against their positions would need to be developed very carefully.

The book is so good, that it has actually taken me the aforementioned three readings before I have been able to find much in the way of cracks in the argument, and even then I am not always sure. When they do appear, they don't seem to affect the final position that is adopted, though I feel that occasionally Levy is slightly too quick in his dismissal of arguments that can be put against relativism.

Consider his critical treatment of claims that some values and moral beliefs are acquired more autonomously than others (and so deserve more deference).

At the end of the day, he may be correct in his criticisms - and he certainly sends out a powerful challenge to theorists who make much of the need for autonomous reflection on our own deepest values and beliefs, something that may not be possible. However, I question his claim that parents always socialise their children into one or another total worldview, and that no rational distinction can be made between someone who is indoctrinated as a child into a particular set of religious (or anti-irreligious) dogmas and someone who is taught to think critically without being indoctrinated into a particular position. Without invoking a spooky kind of free will that takes human reason out of the causal order of things, I think we can say that the latter child is in a much better position - later in life - to draw her own rational, evidentially-supported conclusions. This may not be true of fundamental values, but it does seem to be true about purported matters of fact, such as claims about the existence of supernatural beings. We do seem to have good mental tools for finding evidence, and engaging in reasoning, about matters of fact.

That said, I think very highly of this book, particularly as an antidote for those many philosophers who have come to believe that moral relativism is an obviously crazy idea (like epistemic relativism, which is another story). Folks, it ain't that simple.

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